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Facebook Messenger chief: 'We have a shot at becoming the Yellow Pages of messaging'

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Facebook has very high ambitions for its bots.

One year ago, Facebook launched Messenger Platform, for developers to build chat bots that live inside the Facebook Messenger app and can offer various services—order flowers, buy movie tickets, ask a medical question, and so on. But most of the bots are clunky or silly, and there is little reason to interact with them.

Now, at its 2017 F8 conference, Facebook rolled out Messenger Platform 2.0, and promised a better bot experience, even as it also asked developers for patience.

1.2 billion people have downloaded the Facebook Messenger app, though Facebook isn’t sharing how many users are actually using the bots on a daily basis. It did say there are now more than 100,000 active Messenger bots—a small portion of the 65 million businesses that have Facebook pages.

Citing those 1.2 billion users, Facebook VP of messaging products David Marcus made a bold claim: “When you come to think about it, Messenger has become the de facto White Pages of messenger apps.” Now, thanks to its new plan to beef up bots, he continued, “We have a shot at becoming the Yellow Pages of messaging, too.”

Facebook Messenger chief David Marcus at F8.

Big bot additions

So, what’s new with Messenger bots?

First, Facebook is adding a Discover tab inside Messenger that will offer up business bots to you that it thinks you might need. “It’s time for us to invest in discovery,” Marcus said. And he asked developers to help Facebook “ensure we populate this tab and this new surface with the right things. So, work with us, fill up the categories, and the regions your bot and experiences are actually live in, and we’re going to start rolling this out very soon.”

Second, it’s introducing an easier way to scan QR codes using the camera inside Messenger. Marcus said the Golden State Warriors are planning to roll out an in-stadium fan experience using QR codes very soon. (That makes sense—after all, the Warriors are the chosen sports team of Silicon Valley.)

Third, it’s adding chat extensions so that chats between a business and a user, which have previously been one-on-one interactions, can be expanded to groups. The feature allows users or bots to pull something from a separate chat easily and share it inside the current chat. Marcus’s specific example: soon, users can grab a song from Spotify’s chat bot and share it, with a tap, inside a separate chat.

Fourth, it’s adding smart replies, where Facebook will use artificial intelligence to answer a question from a customer on behalf of a business. (“Because they don’t have time to figure out technology and respond to messages 24-7, they have a business to run,” Marcus said.) The feature will allow a business to automate responses to questions they get through Messenger. For example, if you message a restaurant looking for its hours, Facebook will use its own AI to scroll the business’s page for the information, rather than you having to wait for a human from the business to reply.

Fifth, there’s M Suggestions, which Facebook quietly launched two weeks ago. It’s a recommendation engine a la Yelp, for all manner of services. (M is Facebook’s virtual assistant, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.) M Suggestions “basically recommends things to shorten the distance between what you want to do and getting it done,” Marcus said. “As M gets smarter, it will start making recommendations for chat extensions built by you. And that is going to take a little bit of time to get right, so please be a little patient with us.”

Chat bots desperately need improvement

Marcus was asking developers to be patient, but the request can extend to Facebook users, too. Messenger Bots, so far, have not been compelling.

The bots are often slow to respond; they often respond in stilted computer speak—the interaction feels anything but human. Facebook knows this. Marcus himself acknowledged, “I’m glad we called it a beta… We got a lot of attention for all the work we still needed to do. And we listened. We listened really hard.” We’ll soon see whether Facebook has indeed made the bots better—so far, for users, there’s very little obvious appeal.

And yet, brands are eagerly hopping on board. As soon as Marcus announced Messenger Platform 2.0, companies including American Express quickly sent out their own press releases about their updated bot.

In a pre-shot video that Facebook showed off, executives from companies like videogame developer Activision, makeup chain Sephora, and dating app Meetic praised the bot platform. And Phil Libin, a managing director of tech accelerator General Catalyst, advised bot-builders, “Don’t think of yourself as a bot developer.” Instead, he argued, think of yourself as offering a product that wasn’t possible in the past. “What can you do now,” he asked, “that’s a little bit magic that you couldn’t do before?”

Facebook needs to take that advice: make Messenger bots magic, which they certainly haven’t been so far. It needs to make them crucial if it wants Facebook users to notice and care.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports and tech. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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